Monday, October 29, 2012

The Republican March in Ankara: Crossing the Threshold

Onlookers watch military band in Taksim, commemorating
89th year of the founding of the Republic with police in background
For Turkey, this last week could have been remembered as a nice combination of religion and state. The Muslim Kurban Bayram (Eid al-Adha) fell right before the state holiday commemorating the founding of the Republic. With Turkey’s secular and religious politicians polarized, there was a chance that both groups could celebrate the two important days in unison.  However, once news came out last week that Ankara’s governor banned the Republican Day’s October 29th annual march things began to heat up. Today, defying the AK party’s banning of the march, Turkey’s secular elite marched, and what ensued was an show of force by the Turkish police, who were trying to uphold the government’s orders.

Here is a link to a video showing the violent protests in Ankarafeatured in Radikal.

Since coming to power, almost a decade ago, the AKP party, led by Prime Minister Erdogan, who can easily be defined as one of Turkey’s most influential leaders ever, has worked to curb the state’s secular institutions, which were historically guarded by the Turkish army. For the conservative secular elite, early on they accused the AKP as leading an Islamic revolution; claims that were exorbitant and baseless, but nevertheless, an expected reaction from a group whose influence was being cropped at the stem.  

Headquarters of the Youth Wing of the Secular People Republican Party
The competition of these two groups has touched upon the lives of meaning average Turkish citizens. For example, before the AKP, women were not allowed to wear the Islamic headscarf in universities, which the secular elite defined as a definitive way to block the influence of Islam into the public sphere. Let it be known, that with the Turkish society over 99 percent Muslim, the average citizen really never supported the headscarf ban (one that continues in public offices until today) and were perhaps even relieved when the AKP started allowing all women to study in universities. 

Another form of competition has been how each group defines Turkey’s history, the Republic itself, and how its founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, is memorialized. The AKP, while not banning the official republican days, has downgraded them, treating them to some extent as products of a secular republic which for years oppressed them. Erdogan has clearly maneuvered through these days, participating in them and respecting them; but not commemorating them with past zeal of the former secularists.  The AKP’s stance on the official Republican days also does not seem to represent the average Turkish citizen, who sees the national holidays as an integral part of their daily lives. 

It is for this reason that banning of the Republic Day March in Ankara, the capital of the Republic, should be seen as crossing a dangerous threshold.  The governor’s claim that it was cancelled due to security reasons was seen as a provocation, and once Erdogan publicly supported this move, the Republic People’s Party (CHP) leader, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, called the masses to join him at the march. What ensued was a scene that is becoming more and more common in Turkey: a police force utilizing massive force against civilians protesting in a completely peaceful manner; civilians, young and old, having their faces covered with pepper spray, with water cannons throwing people to the ground, and massive clouds of teargas hovering over. And, it was just not civilians; Kilicdaroglu and other parliament members were also among the masses inhaling the teargas.    

Today’s events should be worrying to the government since it is another sign that the polarization between the two camps is widening, and as was the case today, can turn violent. Further, the AKP, as a result, seems to losing a grip on their massive constituency, who many do not identify with their political agenda but rather have been happy with their economic policies. Furthermore, the government would be wise to investigate how such an important day for so many of its citizens could end so badly. Perhaps, only then, can the two sides start to work together to reach common ground and understanding.

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